Syria is Hezbollah’s Vietnam
Beirut - The leader of Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Nusra Front, called last week for political forces in Lebanon to overthrow Hezbollah and warned the militant Shia group, backed by Iran, would “dissolve” once Syrian President Bashar Assad was defeated.
While al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammad al-Jolani may be expecting too much, he caught a growing feeling in Lebanon that Hezbollah is in over its head in Syria. Despite its assistance to the Syrian regime, backed by substantial Iranian and Russian military and financial aid, Assad’s foes are gaining. His forces have lost ground in the north, south and east and reports suggest the regime is fraying.
Hezbollah, al-Jolani told Al Jazeera, “will dissolve after the demise of Bashar Assad, not a long time from now, [since] the battle is approaching its end”.
Hezbollah is too aware of what is taking place on the ground in Syria to long delude itself about Assad’s staying power. The regime is still strong in and around Damascus, but its ability to hold peripheral regions is diminishing daily. This means the burden on allies, such as Hezbollah and other Shia forces brought in by Iran, will only increase.
Faced with the regime’s setbacks, Hezbollah and Syria’s armed forces initiated a campaign recently to regain territory in the Qalamoun region, along Syria’s western border with Lebanon. While the party claimed it had scored victories, the reality is that al-Nusra Front and its allies avoided fixed battles and withdrew northward, where Hezbollah hopes to bottle them up.
Yet whatever happens in Qalamoun, the battle there has more symbolic than strategic value. It is to compensate for successive Syrian regime reversals. As Shia political commentator Lokman Slim, a critic of Hezbollah, has remarked, the party justified its intervention in Syria by saying it was protecting Shia villages there. Now it is protecting Shia villages in Lebanon. There are no better signs of the party’s failures.
Syria will remain a black hole for Hezbollah. Iran and the Assad regime may alter their tactics and regroup (Syrian forces are reportedly abandoning an isolated military air base in Deir ez-Zor), but it is difficult to see them regaining the initiative, with or without the presence of foreign combatants.
Hezbollah must be considering the aftermath of Assad rule. Al-Jolani’s call on the Lebanese to rise up against the party may go nowhere but Hezbollah is surely aware that the defeat of Assad in Syria will embolden Lebanon’s Sunnis. For the last decade they have repeatedly been humiliated by Hezbollah and the party’s reckless behaviour has provoked calls for retribution.
In light of this how might Hezbollah respond if Assad falls? While the party has revealed nothing, the options are few. Having lost a major ally and surrounded by hostile Sunnis in Syria and Lebanon, Hezbollah would have to protect itself and its arms by reinforcing itself within the Lebanese system.
This has led observers to speculate that Hezbollah may seek to change the Lebanese constitution to increase the share of power of the Shias. At the Taif conference of 1989, which led to the end of the 1975-90 civil war, shares were set at 50-50 for Muslims and Christians in parliament, the government and state institutions.
Hezbollah would like Shias to have more than that and the only way is to take power away from Christians, who represent no more than one-third of the population.
Ideally, Hezbollah would like a breakdown roughly of thirds — a third of seats each for the Shias, Sunnis and Maronite Christians, with adjustments for other minorities. In that way, the party could forge a structural majority with Christians against Sunnis in the future. While the Christians may not go along with this, Hezbollah probably expects them to react to a takeover by Sunni Islamists in Syria by aligning with Lebanon’s Shias.
This is the scenario but how can it be achieved and how realistic is it? The polarisation in Lebanon makes a consensual agreement over amending Taif highly unlikely, while Christians will have to be persuaded that giving up representation will somehow make them safer. That is not easy but Hezbollah has relentlessly sought to exploit Christian fears of Sunni jihadists in recent months to affirm a strategic alliance between Christians and Shias.
Hezbollah is at a crossroads, with none of the paths leading to a desirable outcome. Syria is its Vietnam; Sunni hostility in Lebanon means the party no longer enjoys a consensus allowing it to retain its weapons; a nuclear deal between Iran and the United States could help make Hezbollah redundant, since there will be less need for an Iranian deterrent against Israel; and if the Assad regime collapses, Hezbollah will find itself isolated without a purpose other than to protect its sectarian interests.
Yet Hezbollah will not disappear. It still retains a potent arsenal, thousands of trained fighters and support among Shias. That is why if Assad exits, the only way to stabilise Lebanon and avoid sectarian clashes is for Sunnis and Shias to engage in dialogue, then allow for time to render Hezbollah’s weapons superfluous.